Arrests of War Criminals Loom Over Inauguration of New President

President-elect Jimmy Morales will be inaugurated today as Guatemala’s next leader, amid new protests and ongoing uncertainty about how he plans to run the country. Riding a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, Morales—a comedian with no political experience and backed by military hard-liners—achieved an unexpected first-round win in September before defeating former first lady Sandra Torres in the October 25 runoff election.

Although Morales has not yet officially announced who will make up his Cabinet, information has begun to circulate via “leaks” on social media sites. Morales has already suffered a political setback related to his Cabinet when one of his top advisers, Edgar Ovalle Maldonado, was among a group of ex-military leaders accused of crimes against humanity on Jan. 6. For now, Ovalle cannot face prosecution due to his status as an incoming lawmaker, though Attorney General Thelma Aldana has said that her office has asked the Supreme Court to consider lifting his immunity.

However, last week Guatemalan prosecutors arrested 14 other former military leaders accused of crimes against humanity. The principle evidence comes from an exhumation at a military base known as CREOMPAZ in Cobán, where the remains of over 500 hundred people have been found and where the identities of at least 97 people have been confirmed as individuals disappeared during the 1980s, at the height of the internal armed conflict. Four other arrests relate to the disappearance of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen, a minor, in 1981. The handling of the cases will be one of the initial tests for Morales, who has been harshly criticized by human rights groups for his ties to military officials allegedly involved in abuses from the conflict.

Though some Guatemalans are cautiously optimistic about the future, many remain skeptical that the Morales administration will solve the country’s historic and deeply-rooted problems, including high rates of impunity, corruption, and increased violence against human rights defenders.

Vice-President Biden will attend today’s inauguration, and will also meet with the Presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to discuss the controversial Alliance for Prosperity development plan. In the lead-up to the meeting, 20 US and international organizations released a statement calling on the Obama administration to re-consider US policies that contribute to the displacement of tens of thousands from Central America, as well as for an immediate end to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids targeting migrants and refugees from the region.

An unprecedented US funding package for Central America, passed by the US congress at the end of 2015, conditions 50% of aid for Guatemala to the government’s progress in human rights and anti-corruption efforts. In an interview with Latin Correspondent, Morales stated that Guatemalans should not “place all of our hopes” on the aid package, especially because “all money has conditions.”

GHRC will be closely monitoring both the Morales administration’s human rights policies and US policies toward Guatemala, and working with our Guatemalan partners to push for much needed reforms.

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